The last time boxing fans heard from Danny O’Connor, he was on the verge of his dream fight – a shot at 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez - before the New Englander wound up in Fresno Community Regional Medical Center, suffering from severe dehydration as he attempted to make weight.
That was July 6, 2018, a day that doubled as the one when O’Connor went off the grid. No interviews, no statements, no social media.
O’Connor disappeared from the public eye and even from his hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts. The popular Irish-American battler had already moved with his family to Colorado, and it’s there where he’s been living, far from the boxing business that had been his life for so long.
On March 16, 2023, he returns.
“I did a great job of rebuilding myself and rebuilding everything and just patiently waiting to come back at my peak,” said O’Connor, who faces Luis Garcia on the day before St. Patrick’s Day at Agganis Arena in Boston. “I deleted all my social media, I went off-grid.”
From boxing and the public eye. In “real” life, O’Connor chased different goals. Already a firefighter in his new hometown, he went to college to get his paramedic license, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, he was a first responder.
“I actually transitioned onto an ambulance, so obviously the pandemic took a lot of my time being on the front lines and trying to save lives,” he said.
It’s easy to say that there was only thing missing from O’Connor’s life, but there wasn’t. He was living a full life with his wife Diane and their four kids, he had an important job that he enjoyed, so why would he want to go back into the mud of the boxing business? But returning to the ring was always the plan. The only thing is, it was going to be on his terms when he was ready.
“I wasn't living under a rock,” O’Connor said. “I still kept my pulse on the boxing scene and everything that was going on, but I knew that I needed to be right at my best - mentally, physically, emotionally - to make this comeback and to capture those dreams that I set out to reach two decades ago. I spent my whole life in this sport, and to get so close and to have it slip through your hands, I knew that to come back, every I had to be dotted, every T had to be crossed. So even though I had so many temptations to jump up, until I was one hundred percent ready with a coach, with a nutritionist, fully in shape, good home life, good work life, good balance, good promotion, good everything, every little piece had to be there. Because I do feel like that's one thing I've had missing throughout my whole career.”
That’s the tricky part of boxing, both in and out of the ring. You could be a knockout artist but have a glass jaw, a steel chin but brittle hands, speed, but no power. Outside the ring, you can be the best fighter in the world, but if you don’t have the managerial or promotional muscle behind you, no one cares. O’Connor knows the trials and tribulations of the fight game all too well, but after compiling a 30-3 pro record, becoming a fan favorite and getting the title shot he had fought years to reach, it all came crumbling down during a bad weight cut. All over two pounds.
“It's like everything I've ever done in my life, I think I'm just a late bloomer,” he said. “It took me a while to mature into things and the first thing I will have to say, and I never got to address it, is I definitely want to publicly apologize to Jose Ramirez, to his fans, to my fans. I know they were expecting me to bring home a world championship belt, and I felt like I let a lot of people down in that thing. But the thing is, everybody just saw that rock bottom on national TV at that level. They saw a snippet, a bit of what happened in a five-minute period where I didn't make weight and I took a lot of heat for it, but nobody saw the days, hours, weeks, months leading up to that. I think that that apology should have come earlier, but I wasn't in a place where I was able to do that because I was crushed.”
It stuck with him, but he didn’t look to blame anyone but himself for that week in Northern California.
“I'm not going to blame the sport for what happened with Jose Ramirez and I'm not going to be bitter towards the sport for circumstances that were out of my control,” said O’Connor. “Ultimately, it’s the sport that I love; it's saved my life so many times from the second I put on the gloves all the way through my life. And I say this to everybody, yeah, it's a sport, but it's also an ultimate reflection of how I'm growing as a person. Every time I have a failure, I can come back, and I can build resiliency and I can move forward and grow as a person. And boxing has always been there side-by-side to help that happen and to be a mirror and reflection to see where I'm at.”
So even though O’Connor left Twitter, Facebook and Instagram behind, boxing never left him.
“I went right back to the gym,” said O’Connor of life immediately after the aborted Ramirez bout. “I was even going to fight on an Eddie Heard card but that didn't work out. So I stayed in shape, and I knew that I was going to come back. I wasn't going to live with how that ended, so I stayed in shape and I continued to stay in shape.”
Soon, O’Connor met Raul Utajara and his Ghost Town Gladiators team, and he was home again.
“We've been peanut butter and jelly since the second that I met him,” said O’Connor of the man who will lead him into battle in a couple weeks. “He compliments all the technical things I was missing and a game plan. And I'll tell you, it is unbelievable having a good coach behind you and a good team. Yeah, boxing is individual, and I might be the one in the ring fighting, but it is such a team sport. Having training partners, having sparring partners, having coaches, having people watching out for you, I feel like I've missed that throughout my career a couple times. So it's been amazing.”
The height of the pandemic over, a coach and training team sorted, O’Connor now had to convince his family that a return to the boxing ring was a good thing. Or did he?
“It happen like that at all,” O’Connor said. “Me and my wife are evenly split. We have a great relationship, and anything that we do, we discuss first. So it wasn't like it just popped up and I went to the gym. We sat down together and I said, ‘Hey, listen, this is the game plan. It might take me a long time because I got to go to school, I got to get my medic, I got to do all this stuff. I got to go to the gym. I got to find a coach. I got to stay in shape. It might take me a while, but this is the plan. Are you okay with it, is this something that we can do?’ And she's always supported me. Everything that I've ever done, she's supported me and I support her. So I had to make sure all my puzzle pieces were put together.”
Now they are. And Danny O’Connor is going to get into a fistfight for the first time since he defeated Steve Claggett in March of 2018. So let the questions begin, with the most important one first: is this a one-off, a chance to erase the memory of the title fight that never happened, or are we stuck with him?
“Nah, you're stuck with me, man,” O’Connor laughs. “Listen, I never told anyone I was going anywhere. I kind of just disappeared to get myself together, to get things sorted out and just patiently waited for four years to just build myself up, to get a new team, to get a coach, to get into a legit training camp, to learn all the things I needed to know about nutrition, making weight, diet, my body, and then, obviously, being off on the front line as a first responder and getting my paramedic. That took up a big chunk of time. But ultimately, I was just patiently waiting to come back to be at this stage again and to fully be all-in and a hundred percent ready. And it's just how long it took me to get here, that's all.”
The goal is clear…a world title.
“I'm just here to be laser focused on winning a world championship,” he said. “Honestly, that's the number one reason. Now I work my whole life to get to that platform. And I was so close, I could have touched it. So it's just another chance to pick myself up to be better as a man, as a person, and as a fighter, and come back stronger with all that much better of a story. I mean, you talk to all these old-time fighters. Do I sound like a shot fighter, like I can't string two sentences together? No.”
He doesn’t. That’s a good thing. It’s also a risk to put all that on the line in search of a gaudy belt. But that’s the thing. For those fighting for it, it’s not a trinket, a participation medal; it’s a symbol that at least for one night only, you are the best in the world at what you’ve dedicated your life to. O’Connor has been chasing a night like that for most of his life, from the amateurs, to the club shows, to the fights that could – and did – change his life.
That’s worth fighting for, isn’t it? It certainly is for Danny O’Connor.
“Just going through everything I went through the last four years, to be able to come back and have everything that I've worked for come to fruition is a victory in itself, a hundred percent,” he said. “And if I could get a big name, somebody at the elite level where I could showcase my skills, that would feel good. But I want a belt. And I want somebody at the elite level to showcase my skills. I want the whole cake, man. And I've put my work in this sport. I've worked hard. I've bled for this sport. I gave everything to this sport. And I'm deserving of that, especially now, especially after how hard I've worked to get back. And this time it's not going to slip through my fingers.”
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